Saturday, June 14, 2008

JUNE 14: CHE’S 80TH BIRTHDAY - "Happy Birthday Comandante!"

A brief personal look at Che Guevara


IT was Pope John Paul II's custom to travel accompanied by journalists who would report later on the trip. During the flight, at some point the Pope would go to the cabin where the journalists were and talk with them for a while. Usually, they asked him not just about that particular trip, but whatever else, human and divine, that interested them at the time. The anecdote that I am going to recount is about a trip to Africa — John Paul II made several to that continent — around the late 1980s or early 90s. By that time, there was speculation about a possible visit to Cuba by John Paul II. It materialized in January 1998. In a newspaper or magazine of the time, I read the following, which I am now trying to reconstruct from memory:

In the airplane cabin, they had already discussed the decolonization of African countries, developments that were still relatively recent. If that issue was brought up, it was almost impossible to avoid referring in some way to Cuba and to Che, one of the leading figures in that process. The question was a direct one: "What does Your Holiness think about Che?" According to the article I read at the time, the Pope reflected in silence for a few seconds then broke it by saying, with enlightening simplicity, "I don't know him intimately, but I know he was concerned about the poor. Therefore, he deserves my respect." I realize that John Paul II's opinion led me to a more just consideration of Che. When judging a person's deeds, we should not avoid motivations that he or she had in doing them, in taking a certain attitude toward life. Che is no exception. The excesses that he may have committed in the framework of that "concern" is one thing; what men or groups do for the unjust reasons of selfishness and unbridled ambition is another, of a very different nature.

Like most Cubans, my first solid references to Che came with the beginning of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra, after the landing of the Granma; in other words, in early December 1956. I was enrolled in the Havana Seminary and the disciplinary nature of that institution — now diverse — made it hard for us to obtain information about the political situation or practically anything else that was happening in our country or the world. Fortunately, I kept in frequent contact not only with my family, but with my friends, including university classmates. Che turned out to be the most enigmatic of the leaders of that process. We knew the Cubans; we were getting to know Che.

All the references coincide in affirming his almost rash daring in face of danger, as well as his spirit of discipline. We learned that he was a doctor, and stories circulated about his trip around Latin America, his presence in the Guatemala of Arbenz, his meeting-up with Raúl and Fidel in Mexico, etc. Almost everyone also valued, since that time, the consistency between his convictions and his actions in life. People also said that he was a voracious reader of good literature, with a notable preference for books on philosophy, and for classic authors, not just the Spaniards, but the Greeks and Latin, which I liked very much. He was said to have a Marxist-oriented political culture, which for many Cubans of the time was an obstacle to regarding him positively. I admit that for me, that was not so much the case, because although I disagreed with his lack of a metaphysical philosophy and with his denial of the limits Marxism, I sympathized with the emphasis on socialism. Obviously, Marxism was not, and is not, my philosophical/political orientation, but then neither was, or is, anti-communism, more visceral than rational. While some people saw him distrustfully as a foreigner, since back then, some of my friends, and I personally, related his presence within the Cuban Revolution with that of many other foreigners who collaborated with our 19th century independence movements, above all with that of Máximo Gomez. The Dominican generalissimo, as we well know, is an integral part of Cuba's patriotic and internationalist pantheon.

As we headed toward the revolutionary victory, and the final stage in Villa Clara of the guerilla struggle, the anecdotes about Che naturally multiplied. And so did the questions that I had about him. Together with the positive data, I saw what seemed to be a radical, avenging attitude, hard and cold, in response to human weakness and error; an attitude that has never seemed positive to me when I discover it in those around me, or in people who I come across in my studies of history. The early months of the revolutionary government, with Che installed in Havana, seemed to confirm, in my eyes, the excesses of that avenging spirit, both in Che and in most of the Revolution's historical leaders. Che's speeches and writings in that period were along the same lines.

However, my admiration also increased in face of his existential and intellectual consistency, as well as his social sensitivity. Some of my friends, personal friends, became close collaborators of Che during that time. They were a precious source of information about the richness and nuances of his temperament. We could not limit him to his words. Not him or anybody. And with that difficult sort of contradiction in my approach to Che, we arrive at his final stage, with first-hand knowledge of it through his Bolivian campaign "diary."

Unfortunately, I never came into contact with him. For a good part of the time he spent in Cuba, I was living and studying in Rome (August 1959 to August 1963). Che disappeared from Cuba — Africa, Bolivia and death by murder — without me having been able to fill the vacuum of not having had the contact that is almost indispensable to really knowing and properly appreciating someone.

Then came the years of enthusiasm about Che, inside and outside of Cuba, even among people and groups which distanced themselves from the Cuban revolutionary process. Years of growth, almost mythological, of his image, the one in memory and the one in iconography, with the latter centered on Korda's photograph. Let us remember May 1968 in Paris, and everything that has happened since, in relation — direct or not — to that unrepeatable month. Years, too, with the appearance of essays and biographies. Impossible to have access to so many works. On more than one occasion, I asked for guidance on the matter from Manuel Piñeiro, with whom I had a very good friendship, never damaged by dubious disagreements. For my part, well, they have been the years of the development of Che's image.

Now Evocación. Mi vida al lado del Che (Evocation. My Life with Che), the one-of-a-kind book by Aleida March, Che's wife and sentimental companion during his years in Cuba, the definitive and defining ones. She is the only one who could watch over the presence of those traits from his private life and testify to them now, from the distance of more than 40 years on, in her simple prose, like that of someone in an informal conversation. Just as they must have been recounted to her children, who had no better bridge to Che than Aleida, their mother. Now we have had the good fortune to have access to that testimonial, to take a look at these realities that cannot be grasped except in this manner, that of the testimony of his wife and the mother of his children. A complementary manner that is a must for those of us who want to "know" Che completely. To know him through and through, to the very fibers of his heart; to know him at that level of human being where so many small, everyday realities are decided, like those of social and visible importance, a level where errors and virtues, positive aspects and not so positive ones emerge, are decided and begin to be discerned.

All roads now merge for me in the comment by John Paul II quoted at the beginning of this reflection. Almost everything about Che should be contemplated in the light of his consistent and radical actions in defense of the poor; of his passion for what we used to call "social justice." So consistent and radical was his passion, so razor-sharp, that it led him to make the offering of his own life. And when an upright man goes to those extremes, the disagreements with him acquire another tone, because such a man deserves not only respect, but deep admiration.

Havana, May 27, 2008 (Taken from the website Che80)